The Firing of Legendary Penn State Coach Joe Paterno: An Ethical Dilemma

The firing of Joe Paterno as coach of Penn State has dominated the news this week. A legendary coach with the most wins in the history of major college football, Joe was dismissed for not doing more to stop the alleged sexual abuse of children by former assistant coach Jerry Sandusky.

The news came as a shock, because in many ways Joe was considered an outstanding human being. Not only had he coached at Penn State for 61 years, he’d also donated more than $3 million to the university and helped raise more than $13 million for its library.

I feel badly about the Paterno firing for two reasons. First, I’m deeply saddened about the impact of the alleged sexual abuse on the victims and their families. Second, I’m saddened for the students at Penn State, who argued that the board of trustees should have allowed Joe at least one more game or let him finish the season. From their point of view, Joe had broken no laws. When he’d learned about the sexual abuse, he’d reported it to the athletic director and to the vice president.

As I thought about it this week, the case of Joe Paterno is a classic example of why it’s so important to do the Ethics Check when making key decisions. In our book The Power of Ethical Management: Integrity Pays! You Don’t Have To Cheat To Win, Norman Vincent Peale and I describe the Ethics Check, which poses a series of questions around three areas: legality, fairness, and self-esteem. The next time you’re faced with a dilemma, ask yourself these questions:

1. Is it legal? Will you be violating either civil law or organizational policy?

In today’s society, people tend to focus on this first aspect of the Ethics Check—the legal question. They think if they can get lawyers to okay the decision, they’re doing the right thing. But just because an action is legal does not make it ethical. To assure that you’re doing the right thing, it’s a good idea to review the second two aspects of the Ethics Check.

2.  Is it balanced? Is it fair to all concerned in the short term as well as the long term? Does it promote win-win relationships?

If Coach Paterno had really thought through the fairness question—if he had fully considered the trauma to the victims and their families—he might have realized that he needed to do more. He’s already made statements that he probably should have done more. The fairness question goes beyond the legal question and looks at the effect your decision will have on others.

3.  How will it make you feel about yourself?  Will it make you proud? Would you feel good if your decision was published in the newspapers? Would you feel good if your kids and grandkids knew about it?

Unethical behavior erodes self-esteem. That’s why you feel troubled when you make a decision that goes against your own innate sense of what’s right. As the legendary UCLA basketball coach John Wooden said, “There is no pillow as soft as a clear conscience.” Thinking through how you’d feel if your actions were published in the newspaper or if your kids found out about them can help you decide the right thing to do. I’m sure that if Paterno knew how this incident would dominate his reputation at the end of his career, he certainly would have done more.

This simple but powerful Ethics Check can help anyone—from world leaders to boards of directors to private citizens—make decisions that stand the test of time and result in the greatest good. When you look at all three aspects of the Ethics Check, you can see that in making their tough decision, the board of trustees at Penn State did the right thing.

Is Conflict at Work Ever a Good Thing?

Many people assume that conflict in the workplace is always bad. But I think there are times when conflict is good—because if everybody always has the same opinion about everything, somebody’s not needed around here!

I love to gather a team around me where people have different opinions and feel free to disagree with each other about things. Why?  Because in this way, one plus one can equal about ten, if people share different points of view. One of my favorite phrases is “No one of us is as smart as all of us” and that especially rings true when you have people around you who aren’t afraid to give you their opinion on something. Everyone can work together for the greater good. So it’s healthy to encourage a little conflict or difference of opinion at work, as long as it’s constructive.

If some people on your team have personality conflicts and are just causing trouble and drama, that’s a different story. That’s a problem you may need to deal with as a leader. But generally speaking, if you encourage different opinions, you can learn what everyone is thinking and work out the best decision for the team as a whole. You don’t want a bunch of “yes” people around you or it may lead you down the wrong road.

My father, who was an admiral in the navy, used to tell me, “Ken, if you don’t hear complaining from your people, watch out because it means there’s going to be a mutiny!”  If you aren’t hearing about concerns and conflicts, it may be because your people have cut you off from the channels of communication. You need to know about those things and encourage that kind of sharing. Let your people know that they can have a different opinion and still survive around you, because you are open to hearing their ideas. It will benefit your team and, ultimately, your entire organization.

Resolving Conflict A Matter of Asking the Right Questions

Whenever two people quarrel, inevitably they focus on who is right and who is wrong.  Playing the “I’m right, you’re not” game is a sure way for people to push away from each other even further. If there is a history of disagreements, this mindset will cause even the slightest spat to become a rehash of past conflicts.

Knowing how to handle conflict is an important skill for anyone.  I find that three very simple questions can help minimize conflict.

1. “What would make the other person’s position right?”

The first question is from Mary Parker Follett, a professor of organizational behavior in the early 20th century.  She was one of the first people to point out that conflict was often the result of rational, well-intentioned people who simply saw the world differently and thus focused on different problems.

To best resolve a disagreement, Follett advocated not to dwell on who was right, but rather to try to better understand why the other person sees the situation as he or she does.  That is, ask yourself, “For the other person to be correct, what views would that person have to hold about the situation of life in general?”  This simple technique can help you see beyond the problem at hand and focus on a more general understanding of the situation.

For instance, I once got upset when I felt that someone in my company did not treat a customer well.  But by asking, “How could this person allow this to happen?” I learned that the other person simply didn’t realized the importance I have always placed on customer service.  As a result, we achieved clarity about this issue.

After you have a good understanding of how the other person sees things, you can more objectively discuss with him or her the basis for the specific perception.  It is easier to discuss how the person arrived at the perception and what might change his or her viewpoint than it is to force someone else to change a position he or she is locked on.

2. “What do we have in common?”

This question comes from Peter Drucker, one of the foremost management thinkers of our day.  He believed that sometimes the best approach to deal with conflict is simply to try to make it more bearable for those involved.  Instead of criticizing each other when you disagree, Drucker advocated finding what you have in common with the other person.  Finding a common ground can then typically be parlayed into other areas of agreement.  Although the conflict may not ever be fully resolved, focusing on areas of agreement will help minimize the conflict and make it more manageable.

To take a simple example, suppose a man who works with you is constantly late for meetings, and this bothers you.  You may interpret his behavior as unprofessional and disrespectful and you are apt to get increasingly annoyed. The other person, however, is likely not to see it the same way.  He may instead feel that being on time in life is simply not that important in the overall scheme of things.  He may feel instead, for example, that it is more important to get the job done. He may be willing to work long and hard—maybe even staying overtime—to complete any given assignment.  Both of you place a different value on timeliness for different reasons which are valid to each of you individually.

Instead of focusing on being “right” when the colleague is late, it would be much more productive for you to explore how you both see the subject of timeliness and what you each might do to minimize the potential conflict that results when he is late. You might get the person to agree to call you if he expects to be late, or you may need to emphasize in advance to him when it is crucial for you to have him be on time. These agreed upon “rules” will help to minimize potential friction in the future between you both.

3. “If we were to agree in the future, what would it look like?”

I learned this last technique from my wife, Margie, who convinced me that looking ahead to the future and imagining a harmonious relationship makes it easier to get to that point.

As an example, let’s say you are discussing the future direction of your company with your management team and there is disagreement. Instead of getting caught up in escalating emotions about some aspect of the company’s vision that you feel strongly about, just slow down and imagine what your company would ideally be like in five or ten years. This technique allows people to focus together on a positive future vision that can serve as an anchor in your interactions today.  Again, areas of disagreement tend to become secondary.

Resolving conflict is not always an easy thing to do. Yet, if you take a moment to use these techniques, you may find your anger and frustration slipping away as you take a giant step toward achieving more harmonious working relationships.

Praise v. Criticism

I was once involved in a corporate study where criticizing and praising were actually tabulated and the reactions measured. Look at what we found: When there was one praising for each criticism, people felt as though they had a totally negative relationship with their boss. When the ratio was changed to two praisings to one reprimand, people still thought their boss was all over them. It wasn’t until we got to a ratio of four praisings to one criticism that people began to feel as if they had a good relationship with their boss. Continue reading

Have a Merry Christmas!!

The other day, I had a really interesting conversation. I spent time with Robert Strock, who is an incredible psychiatrist, and my friend Phil Hodges. One of the things we talked about that was fascinating was the theory that anger really comes from hidden sadness. If somebody is upset with you, rather than coming back with anger and being upset as well, try this: Quiet yourself, get out your servant heart, and see if you can find out what’s really causing that energy. It’s like peeling back an onion.

So this holiday season, with everybody running around and getting stressed, if somebody gets upset, just quiet yourself and ask if there is anything you can do to help. Just be there for the person and really try to find out where the sadness is coming from. Life is really very interesting if we really take time to get to know each other and be with each other.  So hug somebody this weekend and tell them you love them. Take care, and have a Merry Christmas!